New Minnesota State Chancellor should aim to raise graduation rates

March 5, 2017 at 12:52 am
Originally published by St Paul Pioneer Press

Graduation/completion rates are shockingly low at many two- and four-year Minnesota State (formerly MnSCU) institutions.  Many students are accumulating debt without degrees. Taxpayers deserve better returns on their investment. We welcome Devinder Malhotra, Minnesota State’s new interim chancellor. We hope he helps bring urgently needed improvements in approach and results to the system.

Four-year graduation rates of first time, full-time students at Minnesota State universities average 23 percent, and six-year graduation rates average just over 48 percent.

Despite improvements in Minnesota’s public high schools, graduation/completion rates at most two-year public colleges are low and, in most cases, declining.

Unfortunately, Minnesota State’s current chancellor and board chair repeatedly rejected requests to discuss these issues with community leaders and educators over the last six months.

While good things are happening in Minnesota State institutions, we should learn more from the most effective schools here and elsewhere.

Minnesota Office of Higher Education statistics show that the percentage of students at most Minnesota public two-year colleges earning a certificate or two-year associate degree is declining.  For example, from 2004-14, the three-year completion rate at first-time, full-time students at St. Paul College fell from 44 percent to 18 percent; at Anoka Technical, from 43 percent to 29 percent; at Minneapolis Community Technical College from 16 percent to 14 percent; at Dakota Technical from 45 percent to 30 percent, at Century from 17 percent to 14 percent.  As of 2014, Alexandria Technical was the only one of 30 Minnesota State two-year colleges with a three-year completion rate of more than 50 percent.

Some two-year students transfer to state universities without a degree. But less than half of full-time Minnesota State students graduate in six years.

Meanwhile, while still facing challenges, Minnesota’s K-12 public-school graduation rates are improving. Statewide, they increased from 77 percent in 2011 to 82 percent in 2015. Rates for students of color increased even more, so graduation gaps are closing. This is partly because of great work and partly because graduates no longer must pass statewide reading and writing tests.

The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage has made education a priority for this legislative session. We must continue closing gaps and improving high-school and college graduation/completion rates.

Fortunately, an increasing percentage of high-school graduates have strong core academic skills.  The share of Minnesota public high-school graduates taking remedial courses on entering two-year public colleges and universities declined from 55 percent in the class of 2010 to 43 percent, according to preliminary data, for 2014 graduates.

With better-prepared students, Minnesota State completion rates should increase.

Minnesota State and University of Minnesota research show students taking dual/high-school credit courses — that is, courses during high school that earn college credit — graduate at higher rates. Young people repeatedly explained at conferences and legislative testimony that, as St. Paul College student Khalique Rogers put it, earning college credit while in high school “changed my life.”

Minnesota State should encourage this.

Unfortunately, last spring Minnesota State increased costs by 100 percent over the next several years for high schools offering a single section of a “college-in-the-high-school” course.

Meanwhile, the regional accreditation association Higher Learning Commission allows Minnesota State to use “tested experience” to help select high-school faculty for these courses. Minnesota State leaders wisely discussed this with union officials. But system leaders refused to talk directly with many education and community leaders about this. It’s still unresolved.

Minnesota State has financial challenges. But just giving the system more money won’t solve key problems. We recommend that:

  • The Legislature provide financial incentives to improve college completion and graduation rates.
  • Entering students with weak testing skills receive research-based support, as suggested by Students for Education Reform.
  • Minnesota State board meetings be held around the state and include public comment opportunities.
  •  National experts be hired to help students, faculty and staff evaluate Minnesota State’s performance and recommend changes.
  • Since high schools can buy products and services from organizations throughout the United States, Minnesota high schools should be able to offer dual-credit courses with colleges and universities in neighboring states. Minnesota should award credit to them.
  • Minnesota State should either adopt the University of Minnesota’s thoughtful, tested experience assessments for dual credit or convene a taskforce of K-12 and college faculty, communities of color and students who have used dual credit successfully.

Reform and accountability, along with more funding, are vital.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Louis Porter II is executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage.